Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) is a Holiness Pentecostal Christian denomination, with
headquarters in Cleveland, Tennessee.
It has grown to become one of the largest
Pentecostal denominations in the world, with worldwide membership
over 6 million in over 150 countries, according to the
denomination's official website. Currently it is the second largest
Pentecostal denomination in the world, with the Assemblies of God
being the largest.
movement's origins can be traced back to 1886 with a small meeting
of Christians at the Barney Creek Meeting House on the Tennessee/North
making it the oldest Pentecostal denomination in the United
The Church of God's publishing house
is Pathway Press.
The precise legal name of this body is Church of God. In 1953, the
Supreme Court of
determined that it alone was entitled to use the
simple name Church of God, after a protracted court case involving
donations that were intended for its orphanages that were being
received by other groups using the same name. The group however
uses Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) in order to distinguish
it from other bodies who use the words Church of God
R. G. Spurling (1857-1935), a Missionary Baptist
minister, and his
father Richard Spurling (1810-1891), an ordained elder
, rejected some of the views of
in his area as not being in
accord with New Testament
Christianity. R. G. Spurling disagreed with Landmarkism
, an ecclesiology
which held that only Baptists were
true Christians and that they should not associate with Christians
of other traditions. Spurling felt that Christians should be united
together by love and not by creeds
believed divided. As long as something was not contrary to the New
Testament, believers should be able to practice their faith in the
form they chose. Although not intending to form a new church or
denomination, their rejection of Landmarkist values placed them in
conflict with traditional churches in that area. Within a short
period of time it became clear that they would not be allowed to
remain as members of their churches. On August 19, 1886, after
being barred from his local Baptist church, he and eight others
organized the Christian Union. They agreed to free themselves from
man-made creeds and unite upon the principles of the New Testament.
Between 1889 and 1895, Spurling organized three other
congregations, all with the name Christian Union and functioning
independently under Baptist polity.
In 1902, Richard Green Spurling (Richard Spurling's son) and W. F.
Bryant founded the Holiness Church at Camp Creek in North Carolina.
Because of Spurling's and Bryant's resistance to the creation of
creeds and church polity
, this young
fellowship of Christians remained ungoverned by any clear, specific
doctrinal standards until the arrival of A. J. Tomlinson in 1903.
Tomlinson provided a degree of organization, discipline, and vision
that were important in establishing the church's staying
Ambrose Jessup Tomlinson
with the church at Camp Creek in 1903, after climbing what is now
known as Prayer Mountain (in the Fields of the Woods park owned by
the Church of God of
in Murphy, NC) and reportedly being divinely assured
that this fledgling church was indeed God's reestablishment of the
New Testament church. Tomlinson was selected to pastor the
congregation, and his drive and vision brought about efforts that
resulted in other churches being organized in Georgia, North
Carolina, and Tennessee. The first General Assembly was held in
1906, and though the intention was still to avoid the creation of a
creed and denomination, the members' consensus on certain endeavors
and standards laid the groundwork for the future denomination, and
perhaps soon demonstrated to the adherents the benefit of some
degree of standardization of doctrine, etc.
The name Church of God
was adopted in 1907. In 1909,
Tomlinson was elected General Overseer. The Church of God was known
as a Holiness church more than a Pentecostal one during these early
years, though some had experienced the "Pentecostal Blessing" of
being "baptized in the Holy Ghost" as early as 1896. In fact,
Tomlinson himself did not believe he received the baptism of the Holy Spirit
some time after being elected General Overseer, when the church had
moved to Cleveland when a special meeting was held by the church.
At that revival the guest speaker was an individual who visited the
Azusa Street Revival
during those services Tomlinson finally experienced this signature
blessing. Thereafter, the Church of God began to place additional
emphasis on the Pentecostal aspect of the church.
In 1923, Tomlinson was impeached, causing a division which led to
the creation, by followers of Tomlinson, of what would become known
as the Church of God of
. The impeachment was the result of lax financial
bookkeeping on Tomlinson's part. One explanation often cited for
financial discrepancies was that Tomlinson may have used church
funds to support struggling pastors and churches and had, on many
occasions, reappropriated money from otherwise-designated funds,
causing shortfalls. Although there was no indication that Tomlinson
used church funds for himself, there were many within the
organization who felt that this type of imprudence was an indicator
of serious flaws within the organizational structure of the
When his handling of finances was called into question, it appears
that Tomlinson took offense at the implications against his
integrity, and perhaps to having his long-term and substantial
authority questioned. Some, mostly in later splinter groups, have
suggested that the financial issues were used as an attempt to move
the church to a more democratic footing, with the office of General
Overseer becoming an elective and termed office, instead of, as
then existed, an office where Tomlinson served by general acclaim
of the church-at-large. These splinter groups continue to maintain
that this change moved the church away from being a theocracy
, however, under both systems, the office
of General Overseer was selected by the approval of the church.
Even during Tomlinson's tenure there was no rule or tenet that
prevented an Overseer from being removed.
Both sides of the controversy now tend to admit missteps by either
side: by Tomlinson in taking too much umbrage at the questioning;
and by those who questioned him for perhaps having more in mind
than simple financial probity, and thus not addressing the matter
in a way that would have been more conducive to reconciliation. In
recent years the Church of God (Cleveland) and the Church of God of
Prophecy have moved beyond these issues and have developed a close
interdenominational fellowship. The two groups are now working
together in many areas of church ministry, meetings, and
The practice of snake handling
briefly became a controversy in the denomination in the 1920s after
it was endorsed by George Went
, a Church of God minister. The practice was quickly
repudiated by the Church of God leadership and Hensley and the
small number of congregations which practiced it left to become
independent congregations generally using the name Church of God with Signs
. Ironically, Hensley died in 1955 after being bitten
by a snake during a church service.
During the latter half of the twentieth century, the Church of God
gradually relaxed what they call their Practical Commitments;
separate from their Declaration of Faith, which are the biblical
beliefs of the church. These practical commitments are the social
practices of the church, and originally included "That members
dress according to the teachings of the New Testament", "That our
members conform to the Scripture relative to outward adornment and
to the use of cosmetics, etc. that create an unnatural appearance",
as well as other admonitions concerning hair, ornamental jewelry,
"mixed swimming", television/movies, dances, and "ungodly
amusements". Many of these practical commitments were modified as
the church adapted to ministry outside of its southeastern U.S.
roots, however the Declaration of Faith has not been modified since
The theological teachings of the church have not changed
significantly since its foundation, and have been regularly
affirmed at the General Assembly of the Church of God, the biennial
convention of the denomination. The Church of God is historically
in its theology. That is, it is "committed
to the Wesleyan/Pentecostal interpretation of Scripture", according
to the Church of God Theological Seminary. Conditional security of
believers is taught (as opposed to eternal security
, and Full Gospel
- the belief that the
baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit, as recorded in the New
Testament, continue to operate and are available to all believers
today. Though generally committed to Wesleyan Arminianism, there
are some Calvinist
and moderate Calvinist
ministers in the
denomination; however, their numbers are few and have not affected
the doctrinal direction of the church in any meaningful way.
The Church of God believes in the verbal inspiration of the Bible
and hold Communion
and foot washing
of God (Cleveland) operates two universities, the oldest of which
Cleveland, established in 1918. The Church of God also
has another University in Oakland, California called Patten
in 1944, that serves its West Coast members and students interested
in an urban experience .
The denomination operates Bible colleges
in several countries,
including International Bible Colleges in Canada and Seminario Bíblico
, founded in 1979, in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, as
well as Mt. Zion Bible College and three others in India. In
response to the need for a seminary, the Church of God Graduate
School of Christian Ministries (now the Pentecostal Theological
) opened in 1975.
In the early 1900s, the church was sometimes called "The Singing
Church" due to the exuberance of the singing, and the strong
reliance upon music as part of the worship service. While the
churches within the denomination today utilize many different
musical styles, music, in general, continues to play a very
important role in the local churches. The official Church of God
Music Ministries Department is known as Spirit Sound Music Group.
This department produces studio recordings and conducts music
conferences during the year.
- History of the Assemblies of God
- Conn, Charles W. Like a
- Conn, Charles W. Where the Saints Have Trod: A History of
Church of God Missions. Cleveland: Pathway Press, 1957.
- Crew, Michael. The Church of God: A Social History.
University of Tennessee Press, 1990.
- Robins, R.G. Tomlinson. Plainfolk Modernist.
Oxford: University Press, 2004.